Not to be confused with the “Golden Ticket “ from a demented Candy-maker, but the story itself is almost as strange!
In one of the early drafts of my book, Surviving the Flier, the main “character” (I use that term loosely since the “character” was an actual man I knew and respected greatly) talked about the various non-quals constantly over his shoulder and behind his back learning Flier’s controls for their final submarine qualifications.
“… [I would ] find a non-qual intently inspecting the air bank gauges, sketching electrical systems, or hovering over my shoulder watching me plot our course on a chart. It was a little nerve wracking, but I had been in that position last patrol, and cut them a break.
“At least I didn’t send them on the “Golden Rivet” goose chase.”
For various reasons, that last sentence was cut, mostly because, while such snipe hunts existed, I couldn’t find evidence of any happening on the Flier. (Still thought it was a fun sentence through!)
But what was the “Golden Rivet”?
For those who remember the Transcontinental Railroad in history class in school, the final spike of the rail which was driven in on May 10, 1869 was made of solid gold. (There were actually four commemorative spikes: two of gold, one of silver, and one of iron, silver and gold). The legendary gold spike was driven in, photo ops were completed, then it was yanked out, replaced with a standard iron spike and the gold spike was promptly put in a museum, where it remains.
That “Golden Spike” lore apparently had an impact on the new Steel Navy now under construction.
The Civil War of the United States (1861- 1865) was really the bridge between the wooden hulled sailing warships of the past, and the upcoming steel-hulled, steam driven ships of the future.
And the “Golden Spike” of the famous railroad connecting the East to the West, apparently morphed into the “Golden Rivet” of the Navy. (Though some say the Navy story is older and impacted the “Golden Spike”)
In any event, the story goes that each ship contained a Golden Rivet, the very first Rivet placed in a ship (or sub). This would perhaps be the Rivet laid at the Keel Laying Ceremony at the start of a ship’s construction. 
It’s all nonsense, of course. A rivet of gold would be too soft to withstand the strains of a ship at sea.
But that doesn’t stop the experienced sailors from using it to prank the new hands!
Aboard submarines, each new sailor fresh out of school was considered a non-qual, a person who had the book knowledge, but not the on-hand knowledge to be a submariner. Their final education took place on board the submarine, where they had to prove that they knew each and every system on a boat, from the engines, to the weapons, to the coffee maker…because you never know when you’ll be a torpedoman forced to cook for 80-120 hungry submariners in a pinch.
Thus all the non-quals had to prove they’d been over every inch of the boat.
Cue the “Golden Rivet”.
I ran across more than one account of an old Submariner telling the new non-qual that the last question on the qualifying exams was telling or showing the Captain where the sub’s Golden Rivet was. As it was in a different place on each boat, the non-qual had to find THIS sub’s Golden Rivet as proof.
This story is doubly ridiculous as starting in the Gato-class boats, the hulls were WELDED, not Riveted. Finding a rivet of any kind, much less gold, would be astonishing.
Still, the Gold-Rivet-Snipe-Hunt suggestion was the beginning of a long, hard, grungy search through the bowels of the ship…and that’s if the prank was fairly benign. It was, according to most, left to the non-qual to figure out that there was no such thing…how long it took him was part of the old hands’ amusement.
As pranks and initiations go, this one, in this form, is rather harmless. There are other legends associated with the “Golden Rivet” that are less so, but I’m not going to mention them here.
Commemorative Golden Rivets have been part of the Transcontinental Railroad, The Rigid Airship USS AKRON (ZR-4), the Golden Gate Bridge (where it famously broke in half and fell into the San Francisco Bay…or an opportunistic pocket!), The Empire State Building , among other stadiums, towers and public structures in the early 20th century, but the Golden Rivet on a ship was never real…except in one alleged case in the United Kingdom.
Aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia, the older hands would tell the new recruits “Look, here’s the Golden Rivet, the last rivet placed aboard the Britannia.” And when the new hand bent down to look, he got a swift kick to his nether regions.
Thus continued a ship’s tradition…until, the story goes, the day Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister, came aboard.
She’d heard about the Golden Rivet, and wanted to see it!
And no amount of hemming, hawing, delaying, or changing the subject would deter her!
Several men of the Britannia, apparently had access to gold leaf on board (it WAS the Royal Yacht after all!) and quickly leafed a rivet in an out of the way spot in an engine room. A few minutes later, Princess Margaret was shown the Golden Rivet, and everyone was happy.
And just to be safe, that rivet remained Gold-plated (or gold-painted) to this day. While I can find no photos of it, I have found more than one first-hand account of its existence. Short of boarding the now-museum Britannia, to check, I think it’s likely there.
At any rate, it makes a good story.
“We’ve out-clevered ourselves! Quick! Gild a Rivet!”
 A few accounts have the “Golden Rivet” as the last rivet.